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Fear of Intimacy

Understanding the Deeper Issues

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Updated June 04, 2014

Taking strain
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The fear of intimacy is highly intertwined with the fear of vulnerability. For many people, however, the two issues are separate. You may be comfortable with becoming vulnerable, showing your true self to the world or at least to trusted friends and relatives. Yet you might cringe when you feel a relationship becoming too close or intimate. The fear of vulnerability, then, can be loosely defined as a fear of showing your true self, while the fear of intimacy is the fear of sharing a deep relationship with someone else.

Abandonment and Engulfment

For most sufferers, the fear of intimacy is rooted in the twin fears of abandonment and engulfment. Those who are afraid of abandonment worry that their partner will leave, while those who fear engulfment are afraid of losing themselves in a relationship. Many people actually suffer from both fears simultaneously.

Fears of abandonment and engulfment are at the heart of many, though not all, codependent relationships. These fears are generally rooted in past childhood experiences, rather than the here-and-now of adult relationships. Although the fears are dramatically different from each other, both cause behaviors that alternately pull the partner in and then push him or her away again. These behaviors create friction and help to destroy intimacy.

Ironically, those who fear abandonment may actually be more likely to leave a relationship than those who fear engulfment. However, when the relationship breaks apart, those with a fear of engulfment may suffer feelings of abandonment.

Social Phobia

Some experts classify the fear of intimacy as a subset of social phobia or social anxiety disorder. People who are afraid of others are naturally more likely to shy away from making intimate, personal connections. However, the fear of intimacy may be entirely unrelated to any other form of social anxiety. Some people are comfortable in loose social situations, numbering their acquaintances and social media "friends" in the hundreds, but have no deeply personal relationships at all.

Battling the Fear of Intimacy

Whether your fear of intimacy is based in a fear of abandonment, a fear of engulfment, or something else entirely, it can wreak havoc on both romantic and nonromantic relationships. One of the most basic keys to battling this fear is a willingness to accept uncertainty. There are no guarantees in life or in human relationships. Every connection with another person is ultimately a gamble. Yet social relationships are a basic driving goal of human existence. Those who fear intimacy ultimately fear the consequences of a relationship that turns sour.

In order to successfully battle the fear of intimacy, you must first be comfortable in yourself. If you truly know and accept your own value and worth as a person, then you know that rejection is not the end of the world. You will be able to set appropriate boundaries to avoid engulfment, and cope with abandonment if it comes along.

Nonetheless, these issues are tricky and often complex. Professional guidance is often required, especially if the fear of intimacy is rooted in complicated past events. Choose your therapist carefully, as therapeutic rapport, mutual respect and trust are essential to the work of healing. Your therapist will help you come to terms with any past or present events that are clouding the situation, and help you design a series of small steps to gradually work through your fear. Healing a fear of intimacy is often challenging, but the rewards are tremendous.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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